As a kid, I would often hear my dad say, “Tree? Tree? Gone, gone, gone.” He’d say it to my sisters and me and a plethora of cousins as if it made perfect sense. At some point, I think we all just embraced it, accepted it as some strange family thing. It wasn’t until many years later that I would learn the origin of this quizzical phrase. After a tree was removed from my grandparents’ yard, my cousin Michael, as a two- or three- year-old, became obsessed with insisting upon the tree and its whereabouts in just two words he would repeat incessantly. “Tree? Tree? Gone, gone, gone.” I try not to assign existential meaning to this questioning and answering about a removed tree. But it’s hard not to think that, as a mere toddler, Michael could already grasp the transient nature of things; namely the intangible, fleeting nature of life itself. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Like toddler Michael, Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet’s Gone poetically and poignantly aims to grapple with nothing less than life’s impermanence. Everything about the performance, from its setting to its costuming and music and especially its movement, embodies ultimate disappearance. Set inside the third floor of a soon-to-open commercial building in a new multi-modal, transit-oriented development in Boulder, the cement floors and unfinished walls with their exposed metal studs and insulated innards speak to a space in transition. In no time at all, this industrial space will be gone, replaced instead by a polished, furnished, sleek office space bustling with capitalism. The folding chairs arranged in a pentagon shape for the audience, the stand-up speaker, and the temporary lights stayed there for a single weekend. Even the setting sun outside the windows and the deepening darkness remind us that nothing lasts; this too shall pass. This could be either comforting or disconcerting, depending on if the thing in question is good or bad.
The performance begins with company founder Robert Sher-Machherndl changing from his “It’s Not Ok” t-shirt and jeans into a black sweater connected to an iridescent rust-orange colored taffeta circle skirt. The window he changes in front of, turned into a black mirror by the night, turns his reflection soft and hazy, ghostly. A sad Elvis Presley song ricochets through the space. Once in the new costume, his movement becomes feminine in its lyric and balletic reaches and swaying. Sher-Machherndl evokes a definite autoeroticism as his hands carefully and sensuously trace the sinews along the length of each arm. At times he pulls the skirt up to his shoulder as if wrapping himself in a toga or monk’s robe. The repetition of movement creates a sense of ritual.
Next, cellist Yoriko Morita, dressed all in white – a symbol of death and mourning in Chinese culture – takes her place on the periphery of the “stage,” her playing soulful, mournful. As if rooted, like a tree, Sher-Machherndl responds to Morita with just his upper body, twisting and turning, reaching even beyond the music’s end..
The audience watches as Sher-Machherndl changes again from the skirt into all white himself: t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. The voyeuristic nature of this setup becomes increasingly uncomfortable as he makes micro-adjustments to his socks, underwear, rope belt, pants legs. The ghostliness of his reflection takes on more gravity as he garments himself in white.
First, Sher-Machherndl moves like a wooden thumb puppet to static-filled music that sounds like someone searching for stations on an old analog radio. It’s amazing to watch such control as he shifts from tight robotic movement to loose and floppy and back again. Then he lies on the ground, his chest heaving up and down with each breath, and it’s as if we are watching him during meditation. The following piece begins with a Benjamin Clementine ballad and is intimate in a deeply personal way that presents a confrontation of man against himself. Sher-Machherndl literally wrestles with his own body, his arm pulling up the back of his shirt as if it were the scruff on an animal’s neck. He then appears almost confrontational with Morita, approaching her with slow, sinister movements until he turns curious, bemused by her presence.
Sher-Machherndl then lip-syncs into a construction work light-cum-microphone to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” à la David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Sher-Machherndl’s face, blue-white in the dark, creates a ghostly visage that emphasizes the song’s loneliness. During the song, Sher-Machherndl runs around the space handing out black-and-white photos of his fourteen-year-old self in all white, carrying a bread basket. His teenage smile, innocent, optimistic, creates a stark, almost jarring contrast to the moody song. In the post-performance talk, Sher-Machherndl says the photo is “where it all started,” in Vienna at his first theatrical performance as a baker’s boy. His current costume echoes that first one.
The sixth piece references the video trailer for the performance, with Sher-Machherndl slowly pouring water over his head like a form of self-inflicted torture. He gasps, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water, as the water washes down his face, neck, and chest. Watching this is like witnessing someone drown on land, inducing a mesmerizing helplessness both haunting and harrowing.
In the final piece, set to Benjamin Clementine’s “Gone,” Sher-Machherndl transitions from subtle Tai Chi-like movements that tenderly unfold his limbs and body to jagged, popping movements as if he were electrocuted. Again, the tension between gentle and erratic stimulates an uncomfortable and powerful sense of conflict in the audience, that keeping us riveted to Sher-Machherndl in a way that is unpredictable and engrossing. The work ends with him lying on the floor on his back as if putting himself to rest eternally. It’s a potent reminder of the ultimate ending which awaits us all.
A poetic and eerie performance, Gone confronts the transient nature of life through its in-transition, raw setting and emotionally-charged movement that leaves the audience rapt and spellbound. With only two performances, Gone came and went like a flash. Dance? Dance? Gone, gone, gone. Let’s hope Lemon Sponge Cake will bring Gone back to life again.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from Regis University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently sits on the board of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and was previously involved with CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared in DailyServing, Quaint Magazine, and Scintilla. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about family dynamics in addition to editing a newspaper/zine about happiness for Denver Theatre District’s Happy City project with U.K. artist Stuart Semple.